On Stages: English-language theatre groups more connected to their audience than ever

We’re hopeful we can arrange a few more visits to the theatre soon (photo: That Theatre Facebook page)
May 29th, 2020 6:00 pm| by Valmira Gjoni
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Theatre stages are where actors belong: where their feelings are released in the most creative ways possible, challenging audiences to immerse themselves into the plot of each play.

People sit next to one another and share emotions – sometimes moments of joy, excitement, sadness or fear, often leaving the place with tears in their eyes.

Can-can cancelled
Shuttered for months, the country’s theatres are permitted to open according to the latest government guidelines – a surprise as many thought they would have to wait until June 8.

But what does reopening mean? Antithetical to the meaning of live arts, social distancing restrictions will apply on stage as well, striking at the heart of their purpose, with performances no longer resembling anything like before.

Actors will have to keep a two-metre distance if they are singing or dancing and just a metre from one another while acting. If any physical contact is necessary, it must be as brief as possible.

“We definitely can’t imagine what romantic scenes would look like – or musicals,” contends Vivienne McKee, the founder of the London Toast Theatre.

Beleaguered financially after productions were either cancelled or postponed, some of the English-language theatres have found alternative ways to remain active during the lockdown, while others have waited patiently for the coronavirus outbreak to subside.

With the green light, they are free to open and shed the financial and emotional weight that has impacted the industry.

Audience visits hit hard
The House of International Theatre was forced to cancel two guest productions: a local one and one from Italy.

“As soon as the flights for the Italian production were confirmed, three days later everything changed,” recalled Jana Pulkrabek, the international artistic director of HIT.

On top of that, May was supposed to be quite a busy month for the theatre as a new production was planned, while the mini-festival ‘HIT goes on stage’ was due to take place during the CPH STAGE festival presenting five different plays, including guest productions from London, Israel and Australia.

Even before the pandemic took hold, audiences were disappearing in fear of infection. “The lockdown came mid-production for us,” remembers Sue Hansen-Styles, the co-founder of Why Not Theatre Company.

“Ticket sales ground to a halt and, on top of that, people who had booked tickets were choosing to stay away from the theatre. It made each performance quite stressful not knowing how many audience members there would be. I had performed ten shows of my monologue ‘Dance with Me’ at Teatret ved Sorte Hest when the theatre had to close down very suddenly, even though there were still ten more to go.”

‘The Visit’, based on the true story surrounding HC Andersen’s overlong stay with Charles Dickens in 1857 by That Theatre Company at Krudttønden, was also caught mid-production. While others, such as the Copenhagen Theatre Circle’s production of two Chekhov one-act plays, ‘The Proposal’ and ‘The Wedding’, as well as its annual Fringe Festival, were caught in the rehearsal stage, according to chair Andrew Whalley.

Elsewhere, some were lucky as the crisis hit exactly at the point when their productions had just ended, as was the case with London Toast Theatre’s now world-famous Crazy Christmas Cabaret, which ended in mid-January.

Support from the stalls
With none of the theatre companies eligible to receive state aid, the future has understandably looked uncertain at times – particularly when the ban on performing was enforced. So it was comforting when disappointed audiences showed their support by not requesting refunds.

“I was very happy with the response of our audience,” recalled Ian Burns, the artistic director of That Theatre Company.

“I wrote to each person individually and offered them refunds on their tickets. Only 150 wanted their money back – the rest either donated their ticket money to the company or will use their tickets for future productions. Have to say that this response warmed the cockles of my heart and that I received many emails of support and encouragement regarding the quality of our work.”

HIT and Why Not Theatre also reported similar levels of support.

In the meantime, they found alternative ways to remain active. Online streaming became a must for artistic performances, as many cultural productions easily adapted virtual ways to promote their work.

CPH Stage, for instance, transformed parts of its industry program for virtual formats, promoting Danish performing arts through the virtual international days, including an online seminar about sustainability, according to the festival’s director Morgen Krogh.

The CTC and HIT both hosted play readings. In the case of HIT, it included several courses of its HIT Lab, including a read-through of ‘Night of the Living’ by Dan Lankford – with the author joining in live from the US.

Why Not Theatre, meanwhile, opened a SoundCloud channel and invited actors from previous productions to record selected excerpts from plays they had been involved in. The audio link was shared on social media as Why Not Voices.

And Vivienne McKee, who annually performs her solo comedy show ‘Killing the Danes’, recently performed in the Teatret ved Sorte Hest carpark to an audience of mostly men seated two metres apart.

“Luckily, it did not rain but these were not the best conditions for comedy,” she joked.

Looking ahead
Despite the continued uncertainty regarding social distancing, most of the theatre groups have confirmed future performances.

HIT is welcoming back thought-provoking pop concert Smil Belinda (June 10, 20:00-21:00; Korsgade 12, Cph N; 105-175kr, teaterbilletter.dk). It is also preparing to present two events at CPH Pride, even though the parade and large events have been cancelled: I Am (Love)d (Aug 17) and Pride Monologues (Aug 18) – a series of staged readings from contemporary LGBT theatre monologues, in which artists reflect on what makes us who we are, to an audience of only ten people at a time.

As for That Company Theatre, it is returning to the stage with a world premiere of Extremophiles (Oct 21-Nov 21, 19:30; Krudttønden, Serridslevvej 2, Cph Ø; 40-195kr, teaterbilletter.dk) in the autumn. Irish playwright Fergal O’Byrne’s play set in a research base in the frozen vastness of Antarctica sees human moral absolutes challenged when survival is at stake. And in the meanwhile That Theatre is hoping to take ‘The Visit’ on tour across Denmark.

CPH Stage is continuing embracing corona-safe platforms, and it is currently offering an online talk about the digitalisation of performing arts in the future with artist Matt Adams from Blast Theory, which is renowned for its multidisciplinary approach to using new technologies in theatre, games and visual art (June 3, 11:00; cphstage.dk; free adm).

The CTC is preparing for its October production of The Effect and for the January pantomime Camelot. It is currently holding rehearsals online for both of them.
Why Not Theatre also has a world premiere coming up. Written by Tanja Mastilo, who has already written three critically acclaimed plays for the group, The Cheyenne are Leaving stars Nathan Meister and Joe Young. Tickets are already on sale (Nov 13-Dec 5, Mon-Fri 20:00, Saturday 17:00; Teatret ved Sorte Hest, Vesterbrogade 150, Cph V; 40-205kr, teaterbilletter.dk).

And finally, the Crazy Christmas Cabaret this year presents Tell Me About It, which will “hopefully” take place between November and January if the restrictions on larger audiences are lifted.